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Leahy, University Presidents Discuss Church’s Renewal

University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., spoke on a panel titled “Revitalizing Our Church: Ideas from University Presidents” on Thursday. The event—put on by the Church in the 21st Century Center (C21)—aimed to address how the Church can be a more effective institution and find a path to restored credibility. It is the second part of an Easter speaker series devoted to the topic. Sister Janet Eisner, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the president of Emmanuel College, and Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, joined Leahy onstage.

The three presidents discussed the status of Catholicism, gave advice to church leadership, and talked through potential lessons from Catholic higher education at the lead of the moderator, Karen Kiefer, director of C21. Afterward, audience members asked several questions,  mostly concerning potential reforms of the church.

Most of the conversation orbited around ways the Church could learn from Catholic colleges and universities. Although none of the panelists shied away or avoided discussion of the sexual abuse crisis, most answers acknowledged the problem by calling for general reform and revitalization for younger generations.

Kiefer first asked the three presidents to describe the current state of Catholicism in a few words or a short phrase.

Eisner, who spoke first, responded with “ever with us, ever God with us,” and “at the center and at the edge.” She went on to explain that, while the Catholic Church obviously plays a large role in everyday life, it also has a significant presence in places outside of mainstream consciousness.

“I can think of no better place to look than at the southern border of our country,” Eisner said. “And I’ve been in touch, today and in the past, with a number of Sisters of Notre Dame who were down there… and they’re working with the migrants as they come.”

McShane, Fordham’s president, used the word “missionary” to answer the question.

“The American Church is once again a missionary church but doesn’t realize it,” he said. “I think that right now, like Paul in Athens, the church is confronting a culture that it doesn’t understand and for whom it is not calling the shots.”

Leahy’s diagnosis came with a much grimmer headline—he used the phrase “wounded and in too much disarray” before directly mentioning the sexual abuse crisis.

“And so I think the huge challenge for the Church is: How does it move forward in the midst of major issues that are there [that] have to be acknowledged?” Leahy said. “But I want to move forward. I don’t want to stay caught up. I don’t want to forget the past either, especially the sexual abuse, but I want to move forward. And I think there are a lot of people who want to move forward. It’s how to move forward.”

Leahy’s answer dovetailed into a conversation about advice the panelists would give to Church hierarchy. All three centered their responses on better incorporating current lay people into Church leadership and drew on their experience in Catholic higher education. Combined, the panelists have logged over 80 years as university presidents.

Leahy began by suggesting that the Church adopt a Board of Trustees-esque body of laypeople. He listed a number of functions that the institution performs at Boston College, such as financial matters, construction, and budgeting.

He united the two suggestions by urging the Church to ask parishioners about what they want to see moving forward and then constructing a strategic plan to pursue those goals. Eisner honed in on the role of women in the Church. She detailed their place in the history of the Church and how the present moment afforded an opportunity for expansion.

“We were talking earlier about the role of women in terms of building the educational system and the health care system as well,” she said. “And it seems to be a great gift to the Church and needs to continue. I can’t say enough how important it is to have a seat at the table. There needs to be women present. Some of the difficulties right now may have been alleviated had it been women’s voices heard earlier in the Church.”

About halfway through, Kiefer began asking more specifically about changes in culture and potential approaches for the Church to adopt.

Leahy first offered up suggestions for seminary schools, advising that more seminarians study alongside the laity, in contrast to current “monastic settings.” He also drew attention to educational settings more generally, which he described as the basis of the Church’s renewal.

Eisner emphasized that church leadership ought to meet students where they are and not wait for people to come to them, which Leahy strongly endorsed.

“We’ve got to embark on a great campaign of listening to individuals, asking them, ‘What’s influenced you in your life? What bothers you in the Church? What would you like to see?’” he said. “Then we’ve got to sift all that and that’s where the decision-making has to come in.

“We have to say, as I said to a group yesterday, ‘We got to get the fleet out of the harbor. It’s rusting at the dock,’” he said.

After the formal questions came to a close, the panelists responded to a handful of audience inquiries. The final question, in reference to the sexual abuse problems, asked Leahy, Eisner, and McShane if there was an opportunity hidden in the crisis.

“It seems to me the possibility of change is greater now than ever because so much of the previous superstructure of the system is collapsing, and so out of that we see parishes meeting it very well,” Leahy said.

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Staff

March 31, 2019